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What Happens To My Digital Identity When I Die?

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Wesley and Winnie Lim think about how websites die and website graveyards. What becomes of them after we’re gone? The same day I encountered those articles, Kristien stumbled upon a “what happens to my digital identity when you die?” article in a digital newspaper. It occurred to me that I should give this the attention it deserves, even though having to deal with it is kind of morbid.

Some social media platforms, such as Facebook, provide the option to nominate a friend as a “legacy contact” who can pin posts and even put up memorialisation requests. By default, your account simply lingers, but it’s very nice to know that there’s a system that makes it possible to put out a message to all digital acquaintances. Twitter and Google also provide forms to request a takedown of an account. There’s even a paper called are the dead taking over Facebook? that predicts a near future in which accounts of deceased outnumber the ones with living owners…

But what if you do not want to simply have your digital presence removed? What if I wanted my blog to continue its own life after mine? Wesley tries tackling this problem by paying for the domain name a decade in advance:

I keep all my domain names paid up for a decade, the longest that ICANN allows. Still, though, if I died today, [it] would probably only last until my credit card expires and DigitalOcean shuts down my servers.

Obviously there are much more moving parts to keeping a website online besides the domain, which is probably the “safest” bit. What if your server crashes when you’re gone? Or a fire destroys the server. Which happened to me last year, and I’m still breathing, so I managed to fix things. But I can’t possibly ask my wife to take a course in system management just to keep my crap online.

Someone at Mastodon mentioned their own server:

When I die my websites go down when the server in my living room is unplugged. I don’t feel any responsibility. Nothing on the internet lasts and if I don’t have a local copy of something when it disappears then I guess I didn’t really need it.

That’s one way of looking at it: a shrug. Someone else seems to have taken more careful measurements:

Hosting: use Netlify, Vercel, S3, GitHub, etc. More platforms the better. DNS: use round-robin via Cloudflare to route to hosts (they have an auto Internet Archive feature as well). Domain: standing orders for renewal payments. In reality, a Trust would be the safest bet. They’ve been doing willed instructions for decades.

Have carbon copies and use Cloudflare’s round robin to randomly assign a host. If one goes down, it’ll still stay up-to-date. Since the source of this site is just plain text, deploying shouldn’t be difficult. This sounds appealing, but effectively increases maintenance while still alive, and this solution is a far cry from the Small Web.

In the event Brain baking does go down, there’s always The Internet Archive, which contains 78 snapshots of this site from August 2013 to September 2022. But if the VPS goes down, it also takes the public Git repository with it, and thus my open source contributions to this world. Perhaps for the Small Web and self-hosting, we need to think this through more thoroughly compared to simply throwing stuff on GitHub.

Also, who says the Wayback Machine will survive in the next 40 years? Or even HTML/CSS or the generator that converts plain text to the current browser-readable format? 40 Years ago, the Internet did not exist. In 1982, only a few articles on this blog would have made it on a single big floppy drive—but it would have been readable in the form of plain text.

Perhaps a Trust would indeed be the safest bet, or someone you trust that will take over reign. Although I think it would be unfair to ask that, as long-term maintenance of a website and the technology involved is deceptively complex. Besides, what if that person also dies?

Let’s back up a minute. First, can my wife access my accounts when I’m gone? To my shame, a few months ago, that would have been a no—not even our shared local NAS. She couldn’t even email colleagues if something happened to me… I then took the time to walk through our backup strategies, see if everything still is in place (and working), and draft a document with accounts, passwords, locations of critical files, and how to access or use the backup(s). That is now kept in a safe physical location and will hopefully never be needed.

As for my books, a legal deposit has been made to the Royal Library of Belgium (KBR)—which is technically a legal requirement. That means two copies of each book are saved in the caverns below the library, to “ensure that our nation’s cultural heritage is preserved for future generations”. I guess the only thing that comes close to this for websites is The Internet Archive.

Next, what about my other works? Do I want unfinished works to be published posthumously? Do I want my analog journals to be accessible by friends and family? I now keep that private: although Kristien knows where I keep them, we respect each other enough not to read them. Is that still relevant when I’m gone? I didn’t even think about what to do with my analog identity when I would be no longer walking this earth, let alone thinking about my digital identity…

Which gets me back to this website. My intentions are to someday publish its contents in the form of a book, which can also be stored at the KBR. This allows the people dear to me to still have access to the silly stuff I write here. Converting these plain-text files to a publishable book won’t be technically challenging, but the question is: will I put out volumes yearly, each decade, …? Furthermore, is this a waste of paper? Hugo reports 728 pages of let’s say 800 words each: 582.400 in total. Given a weighty book contains 80.000 words, this site as is now already takes 7.28 volumes to print. Hmm, perhaps that’s not a viable option—at least not without rigorous editing.

As Brain Baking is mostly a tool to structure my own thoughts, and the website and its contents gets (re)read primarily by myself, perhaps it indeed isn’t needed to keep in the air. Perhaps its expiry date is also my own expiry date—or the other way around.

In any case, I think it would be nice to create a “memorialisation request” functionality, like Facebook has, for this site. Perhaps a stupid script that auto-commits a “Hi, if you’re reading this, I’m no longer there” message that can be appended to the will. It doesn’t need to last forever.

Nothing lasts forever.

In reply to What happens to my digital identity when I die? by Wouter Groeneveld Ha, neat idea for a digital preservation strategy. Getting an ISBN number isn’t very expensive, 106 EUro for 1 or 28 Euro if you buy ten. With one, curation is key. Wi...

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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